A disagreement between Atlantic City Council and administration officials is threatening to delay the hiring of more police officers needed to restore the ranks to the agreed 330 minimum, according to letters between the state and city business administrator.
Without a current list of eligible candidates who have taken the police test and established residency in the resort, the only way to fill vacancies immediately is to hire from a list of officers laid off from other departments in the state, known as a Rice list.
“The mayor, public safety director, police chief and I all agree that the best and most cost-effective way to expedite these hirings would be by using the Rice list,” city Business Administrator Ron Cash wrote in an Aug. 20 letter to state fiscal monitor Ed Sasdelli. “However, the chair of Public Safety on council has lobbied his colleagues and offered an alternative, which will delay hiring.”
The letter was in response to Sasdelli, who wrote a “reminder” that, after the city convinced the state to increase the minimum number of officers from 300 to 330 — with the budget approved — it has often dropped “significantly below that 330 goal.”
The department is currently at 318, including 14 new officers from the now-exhausted list of local eligible candidates. About 15 retirements are expected within the next year, which is how long waiting for a new list — from a test set to be administered later this month — will likely take.
But the Public Safety chairman, Councilman George Tibbitt, says the problem was created by the state when it pushed off the police test for a year, so it should not be used as a way to “circumvent” the requirement that states police candidates must have established residency and be living in the city when they are hired. They may move out of the city after they are employed.
“We don’t want to hire one single person off the Rice list,” Tibbitt said. “We don’t want to give up one job opportunity for our residents.”
But PBA President Paul Barbere said City Council “is missing the bigger picture.”
“They have fully trained officers that are veterans of a police force,” he said. “They’re already trained. They have expertise. We could have them on the street in probably a couple of weeks. The state hasn’t even given a test yet. That means (if they wait for that list), you won’t see a new police officer until 2015.”
“We want to hire city residents, but we don’t have the option to do that right now,” Public Safety Director Will Glass said. “We considered hiring off the Rice list to fill in some of the gaps, but the decision on whether we can do that or not is in council’s hands.”
Keeping the staffing at the agreed-upon level is important to the “clean and safe” strategy for the entire city, Tourism Director Tom Gilbert said.
“That 330 number is something we all agreed is a critical jump-off point,” he said. “You always want to have a very capable, functional police presence.”
But Tibbitt points out crime has been down over the past few months, when the ranks were at about 304, not counting those who may be out for various reasons, such as injury. Overtime costs were not immediately available.
The decrease in violence, however, has largely been attributed to two major gang busts last spring that involved multiple law-enforcement agencies, along with the work of the Atlantic City-Pleasantville Municipal Planning Board that joins the Coalition for a Safe Community with police, the Atlantic County Prosecutor’s Office and other government entities.
The Rice list was not the state’s only suggestion. Sasdelli’s letter also mentioned the possibility of going to other towns to hire either full-time officers or Special Law Enforcement Officer IIs — officers who work on an hourly basis with limited hours and no taxpayer-funded benefits.
Atlantic City currently has 30 Class IIs, but they cannot be moved to full-time status. The state would not answer inquiries as to why.
Tibbitt’s son, Dean, was previously a Class II officer in the city but left — as did many others — for full-time work in Camden when the city reconfigured its force. Tibbitt would not comment on his son’s future plans.
He did, however, say Atlantic City’s current team of Class IIs should count when talking about the total number of officers in the city. Counting them brings the current number to 348, he said. But the Class IIs are limited on hours and will be restricted to just 20 hours a week after the summer is over.
In February 2012, council fought the state when it tried to force them to fill three open spots from the Rice list. But, at that time, there was an active eligibility list with city residents.
The state eventually backed off its insistence, and residents from the active list were hired. That was exhausted with the recent hiring of 14 officers who graduated the academy Aug. 29.
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